Opera Scotland

Moses and Aaron Moses und Aron

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Arnold Schoenberg (born Vienna, 13 September 1874; died Los Angeles, 13 July 1951)


The composer.





First Performance: Hamburg (NWDR Studios), 12 March 1954 (concert).

First Stage Performance: Zürich (Opernhaus), 6 June 1957.

First performance in UK:  London (Covent Garden), 28 June 1965.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King's Theatre), 7 September 1976.

Scottish Opera premiere: N/A.



Schoenberg began to draft the text for his only full-length opera in 1928, finished the composition of the first two acts by 1932, but did not manage to complete the final act before his death. It is possible to perform the two acts as they stand, but the composer, when he accepted that he would not finish it, also approved the idea of reciting the text of the third act.

The role of Moses is performed throughout in 'sprechgesang' or speech-song, so not sung in the previously accepted sense. The intention is to emphasise the opinion held by Moses himself that he lacks the degree of articulacy required to lead the Israelites. By contrast, his brother Aaron speaks fluently to the point of shallow plausibility, and is therefore quite appropriately sung, and by a tenor. The voice of God is represented by a group of six solo voices. The many other roles are brief.


Main Characters

Moses (speaker)

Aaron, his brother (tenor)


Plot Summary

A voice from the burning bush tells Moses to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. But God advises him that three miracles will provide a sign, assisted by Aaron's fluency of speech. When they meet in the wilderness, Aaron confirms Moses' suspicion that his very fluency of speech is not appropriate for interpreting the word of God. The Israelites themselves hold conflicting views of the role Moses should play, some in favour, others seeing him as a murderer whose influence is inappropriate. The people are initially opposed to the description by Moses of an invisible God, and he becomes frustrated at his inability to project his ideas. Aaron has no such difficulty, and his simplification of the argument convinces the people. They still worry about the practicalities of leaving Egyptian captivity and crossing the desert. Moses can only promise them hardship and misery during the task ahead, but Aaron says God will provide everything they require by way of nourishment on the journey.

During the journey, Moses goes off on his own to the Mount of Revelation for forty days. The people get increasingly restless, and Aaron finds the situation difficult to control. The people threaten to kill their priests and stage a revolt, so Aaron promises to create an image they can worship. He creates a Golden Calf. As the people take action, animals are slaughtered and eaten, a sick woman is healed, a young man who tries to restore order murdered, and the tribe descends into an ecstatic orgy of sexual excess. At this point Moses returns from the mountain and restores order, angrily having the Calf destroyed. The Israelites continue on their way, leaving Moses again frustrated.

In the uncomposed third act, the text, someitmes acted out in performance, shows Aaron brought before Moses in chains. His fault is still his need to see tangible evidence instead of accepting ideas in the abstract. When Moses orders that he be released, Aaron drops dead.

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